Top 10 Ways Young Lawyers Win Referrals

  • September 18, 2014
  • Debra L. Bruce

Young lawyers have more pressure to develop business (or demonstrate their potential to do so) than in the past, yet very few receive adequate training or mentoring on how to go about that. The good news is that, despite significant changes in the legal landscape over the past decade, most lawyers still get the bulk of their new clients via referrals from other lawyers. Here are tips for young lawyers (and some more experienced ones, too) on how to generate referrals from other lawyers.

  1. Let people know you appreciate referrals. If you have more time than clients, don’t be afraid to say that you are building your practice, and welcome all referrals. You may get a great success story to tell, even if it’s a small fee. Send a handwritten thank you note for any actual or attempted referral. Handwritten notes stand out today. People want to feel appreciated, and most won’t throw the note away for a few days. It will sit on their desk, reminding them of you.

  2. Build relationships with lawyers in other fields. Many lawyers make the mistake of mixing only with "their own kind." So when a lawyer gets a request for a referral in a practice area he rarely overlaps with, he will pass on the only name he knows or the one he talked to last. Step out of your comfort zone and attend functions for other practice areas. Socialize with your friend’s co-workers. Develop a talk you can give to other practice groups, such as, "the immigration issues every criminal lawyer should be aware of” or "a trial lawyer's perspective on drafting effective shareholder agreements." You don't need a decade of experience to know more about your topic than a lawyer with a different specialty.

  3. Ask seasoned lawyers for career advice. Everyone likes to be appreciated for their wisdom. Tell a season lawyer you would love to treat her for breakfast or lunch and learn how she developed such a successful career. Whether it's a partner in your own firm or a lawyer you met at a bar association function, it is hard to turn away an admirer. Once they give you advice, psychologically they become part of your team. They will want their advice to work and their team to win. Be sure to report back to them from time to time to let them know how their advice is working out. That will keep you top-of-mind for referrals of matters too small for them, but perhaps just right for you.

  4. Seek opportunities to office share or sublease. If you are a young lawyer preparing to hang a shingle as a sole practitioner and need office space, you may find established lawyers who temporarily have more office space than they need. They may be willing to let you sublet that space for a very reasonable rate, or even for free, with the understanding that they can kick you out whenever they need the space. Let them know that you're available to help out in a crunch, and to take unwanted cases or deals off their hands. Do a good job on anything they give you, and they'll involve you more and more.

  5. Get involved in bar association work. How do you get to know more senior lawyers who can refer work to you, if all your lawyer friends are your cohorts?Involvement with the Canadian Bar Association through a CBA Branch Section or sub-Section provides opportunities tomake new acquaintances as you work on projects together. Show up at the meetings regularly. If you only attend sporadically, they won’t get to know you, and you’ll subtly convey the impression of unreliability. Fulfill your commitments promptly and thoroughly. If you do a sloppy job on committee work, people will assume that your legal work is similar. You will be surprised at how welcome real workers are in a volunteer organization, and how quickly you can move into a pretty visible position.

  6. Take opposing counsel to lunch. Whether in transactional work or litigation, a lawyer zealously representing her client can get cross-wise with opposing counsel in the process. After the trial is completed or the deal closed, invite your opposing counsel to lunch to smooth over any rough spots with them. They will become a friend. As an associate, I landed my first big client (and many more) as a referral from a former opponent with a conflict. Who better knows your capabilities than someone who has gone toe to toe with you? Don't hesitate to extend those lunch invitations to more senior lawyers. They'll respect your moxy.

  7. Start a blog. Blogging levels the playing field for newcomers. It gives younger lawyers the opportunity to showcase their analytical skills and join the conversation with recognized experts by quoting them and linking to them. Most bloggers subscribe to features that notify them when their name is mentioned or someone links to their blog. You don't have to pretend to be smarter than your elders. You can simply aggregate and contrast their comments on the hot topics in your area of practice. Many lawyers starting their own practice have garnered the attention of referring lawyers from other jurisdictions through their blogs.

  8. Use social media to attract attention and build relationships. Now that you're blogging, incorporate your blog into your Facebook page or your LinkedIn profile. Tweet teasers about your blog topic with a link to your latest post. Connect on Facebook and LinkedIn to experienced lawyers who might be referral sources. Retweet their tweets on Twitter. Engage in Twitter conversations on the topic. Participate in industry group discussions on LinkedIn and Facebook. Post social media status updates that keep your connections aware of your blog posts, your accomplishments, your speaking engagements, and other indicia of what a go-getter you are. Such efforts will help ensure they remember you when they have a referral to make, and it can attract clients directly, too.

  9. Do favours. Find ways to benefit those more experienced lawyers from whom you would like referrals. They'll want to re-pay you. Many young lawyers think that they don't have anything to offer an older and wiser lawyer. Yet many older lawyers feel overwhelmed by all the technology that young lawyers grew up on. Offer to show them how to jazz up their PowerPoint for a presentation, or explain how to wipe out metadata before sending a document to opposing counsel. Teach them how e-filing works at the courthouse or where they can do online legal research without incurring expensive fees. Set up social media profiles for them and show them how to reconnect with former clients there. Show them apps on their iPhone that would make life easier. You are only limited by your imagination.

  10. Make referrals to others. You will be surprised at the opportunities you find, when you listen for problems people have. When it’s not your specialty, offer to give contact information for a couple of lawyers who may be able to help. Let the client know that you will send those lawyers an email to smooth the way. The client will be favorably impressed by your unselfish efforts to help them. You will also gain "brownie points" from the other lawyers for the attempted referral, even if the client doesn't call. That creates a three-for-one effect of people who want to return the favour one day.

People want to do business with, and make referrals to, someone they know, like and trust. Focus on being that kind of lawyer, and keep using these tips. It’s a process, but your practice will grow.

Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC (, a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is the former Vice-Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of the Houston chapter of ICF.